Wunderzeichen and society in late Reformation Germany: Lutheran clergy and celestial wonders

Ken Kurihara, Fordham University


People in 16th-century Germany showed great interest in celestial Wunderzeichen (wonder-signs) such as comets, irregular movements of the sun, the northern lights, and visions of strange objects. Lutheran clergy shared people's enthusiasm with these phenomena and they actively exploited stories of these Wunderzeichen to promote their own agendas. This dissertation examines why the clergy were interested in Wunderzeichen, for what purposes they used these stories of wonders, and what kinds of roles Wunderzeichen fulfilled in the history of religious controversies, which plagued the Lutheran Church throughout the latter half of the 16th century. Wunderzeichen were generally regarded as signs of God's wrath and the coming of the Last Judgment. In their sermons, many clerics quoted stories of wonders to accuse hearers of their moral failures, to press them to repent, and to reassert their authority as servants of God's Word. Their uses of Wunderzeichen discourses reflect Lutheran clergy's deep frustration with the slow progress of the Reformation and popular anticlericalism. Some theologians used Wunderzeichen stories for polemical purposes. During the Interim Crisis, Matthias Flacius Illyricus published an account of the apparition of "an eagle hurting himself' and used it as propaganda against the religious policy of Emperor Charles V, whose herald was a double-headed eagle. Christoph Irenaeus, once a court preacher of Weimar but later expelled because of his theological positions, published four books on Wunderzeichen. In these works, Irenaeus uses stories of wondrous phenomena to catch the readers' attention and then to lead them to his attacks on "false prophets," his theological opponents. This study shows that the backbone of Wunderzeichen discourses was Lutheran eschatology. Luther and his followers believed that the Day of Judgment was approaching because the identity of Antichrist was revealed as the pope and the final battle between God's Church (Lutherans) and Satan's agents (Roman Catholics) had started Since Christ warned that various signs would appear in the heavenly bodies prior to the End, Wunderzeichen offered support to their apocalyptic conviction. As the confessional tensions in Europe eased after the Thirty Years' war, eschatology lost its popularity, and consequently Wunderzeichen discourses gradually declined.

Subject Area

Religious history|European history|Theology

Recommended Citation

Kurihara, Ken, "Wunderzeichen and society in late Reformation Germany: Lutheran clergy and celestial wonders" (2010). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI3416003.